- The Descola VariationsThe Ontological Geography of Beyond Nature and Culture
Much about Philippe Descola is exactly what you end up deciding you might have expected from someone holding a chair at the Collège de France. So measured is his tone when discussing what is clearly an extremely wide learning that it becomes obvious that this is someone with the tact and discretion of a politician, and thus the capacity to survive the complex trajectory leading to a professor-ship at that almost inaccessibly elite institution. Nothing in his appearance disconfirms it: his considerable height, still full white hair and beard, and long, masculine face give him a patrician air that you, the disoriented foreigner, imagine to be like that of many of his Republican forebears interred up the hill in the Panthéon. Objective criteria agree—France’s Centre national de la recherche scientifique conferred upon him its highest honor, a medallion d’or usually reserved for genius in the natural sciences, he presided until recently over the anthropological laboratory founded by Claude Lévi-Strauss, and a major, celebrated exhibition at Musée de quai Branley was a result of his work—while a first meeting at his office might as well be with a mid-level political official, the staff assuring you that the Monsieur, while running late, will still see you, and he himself later welcoming you to his office with entreaties to “Sit down, please sit down, make yourself comfortable!” that are accompanied by a stream [End Page 65] of unprompted laughter so loud and prolonged that it unnerves you until you realize that it was intended to be reassuring. (This is famous laughter.) The conversation that follows is erudite, stimulating, and often quite surprising, but lacks the edge and intensity of the old French theory, and you begin to feel that you are seeing what you have always heard: the Paris of the 1960s, 1970s, and before is indeed no more, having been long ago replaced by a cautious, moderate approach to thinking, and here at the Collège, its old inventive, often dangerous representatives (not just Foucault, but Merleau-Ponty, Barthes, Bourdieu, and others) really are dead.1
Impressions like this have often been formed of Descola and his work, whose chief expression is the 2005 (but only recently translated) tome Beyond Nature and Culture, a vast, sort of neostructuralist account, among other things, of why it is we believe in Nature (a text that one might think to be a genealogy were it not to suggest why that particular mode of explanation has perhaps, for now, run its course).2 Apart from the rather crucial use his lifelong friend and interlocutor Bruno Latour made of his work in We Have Never Been Modern—it is with reference to the indigenous Amazonian people the Achuar, with whom Descola did fieldwork, that Latour argues that other collectives have been better at acknowledging nature/culture hybrids than their modern counterparts—the reaction to Descola’s work has been unjustifiably dismissive, particularly given the strikingly unanticipated character of his main idea.3
Q: How do we come to think there is a sphere of nature to which humans, on account of their possession of language, culture, and history, constitute the sole exception? A: Because we identify beings, human or otherwise, in a way that becomes clear only when contrasted with other ways of doing so. When we moderns compare ourselves, that is, to Amazonian, other Amerindian, Siberian, and other peoples who ascribe intentionality, humanity, and personhood to nearly the entire gamut of earthly beings (not just animals but plants, minerals, and tools make the cut) while differentiating them from each other and themselves on the basis of their bodies, what emerges is that moderns sees things in reverse: for us, humans are continuous with other beings at the level of the body and discontinuous with them at the level of mind. For animist groups, again, the continuity between humans [End Page 66] and nonhumans is located at the level of consciousness, and discontinuity at the level of bodies, and this “ontology,” or distribution of beings, is what renders clear the terms and...